PITTSBORO — The aromas of warm cinnamon crumb cake wafted through the air as tensions rose.
The cake melded with the nostalgic flavors of peanut butter and jelly in a gooey delight. Then, a creamy finish of ice cream topped off the whole experience. It was an amalgamation of flavors that, when combined, felt sinful in all the best ways.
Just as this sacrilegious ice cream sandwich hit the taste buds of attendees at Cafe Root Cellar in Pittsboro, there were shrieks of elation.
The cries of joy were not only for the decadent dessert, but also because Chef Sera Cuni, owner of the Pittsboro establishment, had been named the winner of “Supermarket Stakeout,” a Food Network competition show.
In the episode “Fast Food Frenzy,” which aired last Tuesday, Cuni demonstrated her quick thinking and culinary skills through three rounds of competition, wowing the show’s judges, including celebrity host Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, who awarded Cuni the grand prize of $10,000.
The show features a pop-up kitchen outside of a grocery store, where chefs must convince shoppers to sell their recently purchased groceries, with hopes of snagging needed ingredients to complete their assigned themed dishes. In Cuni’s episode, chefs were challenged with themes of burgers, tacos and ice cream.
The appearance was Cuni’s third time on a Food Network competition show, but the first time she took home a top prize. She credits the victory to her wit, creativity and willingness to break the rules in the kitchen.
“I felt really good going into the last round, so it was exciting finally hearing my name called,” Cuni said.
In the first round of competition, Cuni was tasked with making a burger, but she didn’t have any ground beef or meat substitutes. No matter. She whipped up a sloppy-joe-style egg burger with cheddar cheese. Through a blend of spices and unique cooking techniques, judges remarked her egg tasted “almost like chorizo.”
The ingenuity was enough to get her to the next round: tacos.
Here, Cuni hit her luck. She got the perfect taco mix from the supermarket and whipped up a fall-off-the-bone pork rib tostada with chili beans and avocado salsa.
She sailed into the finals, needing a delectable dairy treat to win the competition. Whispers of attendees started to circulate throughout the restaurant as the final round approached.
“I think she’s going to win,” onlookers whispered to their neighbors with nervous delight.
Ultimately, she sealed her fate on a PB&J crumb cake ice cream sandwich stuffed with peanut butter ice cream, and layered with a grape lemon glaze, chocolate caramel, and toasted marshmallow. Cuni cooked up a batch of her award-winning dessert and surprised guests attending a watch party at the Pittsboro restaurant Tuesday night with the treats.
“The whole experience was a blast,” Cuni said. “I really enjoyed getting to know the other chefs and, you know me, I’m always up for a good competition.”
The win Tuesday night was a reflection of Cuni’s hard work in the kitchen, and her general go-with-the-flow approach to cooking at Root Cellar every day. She said the show required thinking on her feet, and not being pigeon-holed in her cooking style. But to Cuni, neither of those things has ever been a problem.
“I’m the type of person that if you give me a random bag of food I’ll make you something out of it,” Cuni said.
That flexible style is also how Cuni runs Cafe Root Cellar, and what makes her restaurant so likable to locals. The menu there changes weekly and often features local seasonal ingredients.
To Cuni, making food and enjoying it with others is supposed to be relaxed and fun, which is what she tries to reflect in the space she creates in her restaurant.
“Nobody goes out to dinner to be more stressed out,” she said. “Well, we should have fun, too. So I kind of live my life, and my style of cooking, in that fun way too.”
The “fun way” hasn’t always been Cuni’s style. In her early days of culinary school, she thought fine dining and precise techniques were the way to prove herself as a “proper chef.” But over time she learned the value of slowing down, appreciating the food and cooking with the seasons.
Now in her 27th year as a professional chef, the mohawked, tattooed Pittsboro chef says she cooks her way, for her people.
The fun-loving atmosphere was on display for the Supermarket Showdown watch party last Tuesday. Prior to the viewing, Cuni was playing Mario Kart with attendees while others noshed on spiced popcorn she had prepared for guests.
And when the clock struck 9 p.m., the lights went out and the cheers erupted each time Cuni appeared on screen. Around 50 Chathamites gathered inside Cafe Root Cellar to celebrate the community that Cuni’s food, and personality, have brought together over the years.
Her triumph in the quirky game show a symbol of the passionate excitement she exudes toward her work each day.
“Maybe some high-end chefs look down on being on a show like this,” Cuni told the News + Record. “But if some kid watches me and then tells their parents ‘I want to be a chef,’ then that’s pretty freakin’ cool.”